“It’s a hard thing to walk away from work,” Jennifer L. Nelson said during our recent phone conversation. We were talking about her decision, in light of the firing by the DC Jewish Community Center of Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth, to sever her upcoming involvement with Theater J. Nelson was slated to direct a play for the company in May.
Most readers will be familiar with the controversy surrounding Roth’s dismissal. It has been covered extensively in local media and received national attention in The New York Times. Involving as it does artists and others living in Israel, the incident has had international repercussions. Scores of Artistic Directors from around the country signed an open letter of protest following Roth’s firing. The letter accused the DCJCC of inappropriate interference in artistic decision-making with the intention of limiting the artistic freedom of the theatre and also of limiting the political discourse that the programming intended to encourage.
Everyone admires a person who makes a stand on principle, whether its Cyrus Vance resigning as Secretary of State in protest of President Carter’s decision to attempt a rescue during the Iranian hostage crisis, or Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus refusing President Nixon’s order to fire Archibald Cox at the expense of their jobs. Still, those kinds of profiles in courage tend to be the exception and not the rule, which is why, when they occur, they impress us so.
“I try not to judge other people,” Nelson told me. It was apparent that she empathized with others who have stayed involved with Theater J, people in different circumstances than hers and who have made reasonable arguments that it is important to fulfill the intention and vision of the season that Roth put in place but was unable to see through. It is also apparent that she was surprised and somewhat dismayed that “I know of almost nobody else who said, ‘I stand with Ari.’ The biggest surprise is that nobody else has done this” and followed her out the door.
Nelson’s decision was not rash and was not made without consideration of its consequences. “I was really nervous and thinking, ‘If I walk away, what will happen? Will it have an effect on my career?’” Nelson calculated that in all likelihood “I’ll never work at Theater J again,” a not inconsequential outcome for her, since Theater J, along with Forum Theatre and Ford’s Theatre, is one of the groups who most frequently hired her. “That consideration was a big part of whether I would make that choice. On the other hand, Ari was the one that hired me, not Theatre J.”
Nelson said of her decision: “This act — my conscience wouldn’t let me not do it. In my universe, we stand by what we believe. Not to make that choice was tacit approval of what they did. ‘Too bad, so what, let’s go on like nothing happened.’ I couldn’t have forgiven myself.”
Nelson drew nuanced distinctions: “It’s not Theater J — it’s the DCJCC” whose actions she objects to. That said, she has perceived an attitude that “our theatre community has been very loyal to Theater J” and somewhat less supportive of Roth beyond the, however impressive and important, rhetorical support.
Nelson sounded torn. She was acutely aware of the ramifications that her decision could have: “I realized that I may never work in this town again.” At the same time, she seemed almost freed by not needing to care about consequences: “Who’s hiring me? It’s not like I’m shooting myself in the foot.”
“It was a total surprise,” Nelson remarked after I asked whether she had any inkling that this might be coming. “I wasn’t privy to the internal conversations. I knew about The Admission and other times Ari had tried to bring in Palestinian voices,” she said, referring both to the production last season that had been programmed and then was downgraded from a full production to a workshop following pressure on the DCJCC and, more broadly, to the crux of what about Roth’s programming was triggering pressure against it. “I was aware but had no idea that things were as sick as they were…I was totally stunned” when she learned that Roth had been fired.
And how did she learn about that? “The Theater J people sent an e-mail out to all of the casts of shows that were coming up, and then Ari sent out a message.” The e-mail from Theater J told the recipients “not to say anything, as they were trying to manage the way the news hit. The next day, it was all over the place.”
That impulse, to control the message, and Roth’s response reminded me of that line from Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gently into that good night.” Reportedly, it was Roth’s refusal to accept a severance offer that included a gag order which precipitated his abrupt dismissal and the gratuitous humiliation of his being escorted from the building by a guard, as if he were a criminal forced to do the proverbial “perp walk.” Nelson noted that the DCJCC line seemed to be, “‘We gave him an opportunity to make this right and he didn’t do it; he didn’t accept the terms.’ That was a very interesting little political maneuver.”
I asked Nelson how closely she has followed the fallout. “I’ve been reading about it, like everyone, but I’ve stopped. There’s nothing new, nothing different, no new insight, just people buttressing their stands. But there has been a subtle shift in the narrative. At first, they were trying to be nice about Ari. Now, it’s Ari’s fault. ‘If he had accepted our terms, there wouldn’t be this big stink.’ Oh, I see: it’s Ari’s fault that he got fired, because he refused to take the easy way out. That’s my impression of the whole thing, using the cover story about his behavior as an employee. But I don’t know any more than anyone else. I don’t have any perspective that’s not known. He thought he was standing up for his principles. He was already thinking about the other company [Roth intends to launch Mosaic, which will continue the sort of Theater J programming to which the DCJCC objected] and had intended to make his departure in his own time, but that’s all public.” (Artistic Directors of theaters routinely field outside projects, but DCJCC seemed to be surprised, and to feel it wildly inappropriate, that Roth engaged in any activity beyond Theater J’s walls while he was on the Theater J payroll. And the job of an AD routinely involves so much “above and beyond” effort that any sort of clock-punch carping about time spent working for the organization seems silly to me. I can’t think of any Theater J performance, for instance, that I ever saw that didn’t involve a curtain speech by Roth.)
Regrets? “I’m sorry that I don’t get to do that play.” Nelson was slated to direct The Call by Tanya Barfield. When Playwrights Horizons produced it in New York, Charles Isherwood in The New York Times called it “a thoughtful and engrossing new play.” She said: “I love the script. I love the playwright. (I know her casually.) The cast included great actors, some of my favorite actors. I regret that I don’t get to do that work, but I don’t regret the decision.”
There is a persuasive argument to be made as to why the many talented and honorable people on the staff of Theater J, or who are working on upcoming projects, would stay onboard, in an attempt to demonstrate loyalty to Roth’s vision. I do feel, though, that the company will face a credibility challenge going forward from this season. Will a new Artistic Director inherit a company perceived as artistically compromised by its parent organization? Or will that person be able to establish an organization perceived as able to operate in a zone of artistic integrity, despite the curtailment of the programming possibilities that has been inarguably demonstrated by the removal of Roth? I asked Nelson for her opinion.
“I doubt that Theater J will lose credibility and I’ll tell you why not: most people in the theatre community want to work more than they want to make a statement. We’re not different from other trades in that. Our industry doesn’t have any more of a moral compass than other professions. These days, conservatives are more energized to stand up for their beliefs than those of us on the liberal end and maybe that’s why people were so astounded by Ari’s choice. The challenges ahead of us are going to test all of us more and more and we will each have to decide where to stand. I’m not trying to be a radical: I just don’t want to be associated with choices I don’t believe in.”
Nelson took her analysis further as she contemplated the implications of artistic expression held hostage by those who fund it: “I’ve thought a lot about the impact of withheld funding if certain programming went forward. Then I thought, ‘Wow. The flip side of that is that if that funding were withheld, we’d see more independence.’ We need to decide who we are and not be irrevocably tied to pressure from people with money. Currently the way the whole system is set up we are dependent on donors and foundations as much as, or more than, audiences. That’s the current state of the non-profit theatre. But that’s not when great art happens; great spectacle may happen, but that is not necessarily great art. That’s why so much exciting new work is generated in small theaters. Ironically, their very poverty gives them freedom. My hope is in the small theatre world, the ones that manage to survive and get by by the force of their passion in spite of the paucity of funding. To me, that’s the hope.”
And with that refreshing perspective, our conversation ended, and I looked out on a pure snowfall, played with my lovely toddlers, and felt a little better about the world.
[For the record: while artistic director of WSC, I invited Jennifer Nelson to direct As You Like It in the year 2000, in which production I played Jacques. Ari Roth is a neighbor and a Facebook friend.]